work of dogs
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
From puppy to partner, guide dogs are a special breed
Each year, guide dog schools—independent nonprofit organizations that provide guide dogs for blind and visually impaired individuals—breed close to 3,000 dogs. When so many intelligent, loving shelter dogs are in need of homes, why don’t guide dog schools rescue dogs like some of the other service-dog programs? The answer lies in the nature of the work guide dogs are required to do. Dog jobs, like people jobs, are task-specific and require specific temperaments, some of which can be selected for through breeding.
The term “service animal” was first used in the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act to describe an animal individually trained to provide assistance to a person with a disability. While at that time, guide dogs for the blind were the most familiar type of service animal, over the years, the variety of tasks service dogs carry out has increased to include dogs who perform some of the functions that an individual with a disability cannot perform for him- or herself, such as alerting people with hearing impairments, pulling wheelchairs, or carrying and picking up things for people with mobility issues.
Watching blind travelers confidently make their way through busy city traffic, you might think that the guide dog is doing the same thing—performing a task that the blind person cannot perform for him- or herself. In other words, it may appear that the dog is leading the blind person, but that’s not the case. Both of their lives depend on what the other one does, and neither is in total control at any given time. Neither dog nor person can cross the street alone without risk, but together, they do it efficiently and safely.
Terry Barrett, director of training operations at Guide Dogs for the Blind (GDB) in San Rafael, Calif., says, “In our earliest days, the 1940s, most of our dogs came from animal shelters. It soon became evident that we were looking for something very specific: Dogs who not only had excellent health, intelligence and temperament, but also exhibited a willingness to work and thrived on praise.” GDB’s breeding program was started in an effort to ensure a consistent supply of dogs with those specific traits.
By the late 1970s, new socialization methods (raising puppies in home environments) were proving so successful that shelter dogs, most of whom came from disadvantaged or unknown backgrounds, became less likely candidates for the work. As guide dog work intensified and breeding programs were beefed up, opportunities for shelter dogs all but disappeared.
Labrador Retrievers, who constitute about 60 percent of these working dogs, have proven to be the most successful guide worldwide, mainly because there is enough variation within the breed to meet blind students’ myriad needs. “The vast majority of our dogs are bred from our own specially selected stock, but a percentage are donated from other schools, through international programs and other means,” Barrett notes.
Regardless of lineage, guide dogs have distinct counter-intuitive characteristics in common. Because they are, to great extent, bred for a specific temperament, they are more like one another than they are like others of their particular breed. If they were children, their report cards would read: “Follows instruction, participates in class, very creative, assumes responsibility when necessary, shows leadership and works well in a group.”
Breeders aren’t selecting for these traits as much as they are selecting against others. They want a German Shepherd who is tractable, a bird dog who is not prey-driven, a herding dog who won’t nip people to negotiate busy pedestrian traffic. Unlike traditional breeders who select for niche traits such as pointing, herding or wire-haired coats, schools select for temperament characteristics that are broadly adaptable.
For decades, guide dog schools have conducted and recorded detailed observations on many thousands of dogs. This volume of information and the length of time it’s been collected have allowed schools to reliably classify and quantify temperament traits. Their ultimate goal is to find measurements that will predict guide dog success and estimate heritability of temperament traits that are important to working guide dogs.
Generally speaking, many dog temperament tests have proven to be ineffective and controversial. In addition, few tests account for the dramatic behavioral differences seen from one breed to another; what’s acceptable in a German Shepherd might be abnormal behavior in a Golden Retriever.
According to an article by Taylor and Mills in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior, Clinical Applications and Research (2006), what’s needed are systematic scientific tests that focus on the five key measurements of the quality of a temperament: purpose, standardization, reliability, validity and practicality. It would take a large number of dogs in a consistent setting to devise such a test, and this is where guide dog schools are getting involved.
For example, Guiding Eyes for the Blind, based in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., is working with trainer Suzanne Clothier on a novel temperament evaluation project that tracks the behavior of hundreds of dogs from puppyhood through maturity, investigating how best to identify, and then select for, a set of traits that reflects flexibility of behavior. As Jane Russenberger, senior director of the canine development center at Guiding Eyes for the Blind, observes, “Because we believe in it and, like other schools, need better temperament measures, Guiding Eyes is providing that opportunity by allocating large amounts of resources to conduct the temperament tests.”
Part of the drive to refine this process comes from the financial and emotional commitment made to each dog by both the school and the eventual handler. Although it varies from school to school based on geographic region, on average, it costs about $50,000 to graduate a person/dog team. This figure includes all costs divided by the number of teams the school graduates each year. (The 11 schools in the U.S. graduate about 1,500 to 2,000 teams annually.) The cost just to prepare a single dog for class is about $23,000.
Direct costs—breeding, feeding, vet care and puppy-raising expenses—consume about 25 percent of the budget. Another 20 percent goes into training dogs for class. About 35 percent goes into student selection, dormitory and class expenses, and follow-up services. Once the training is complete and the team returns home, it can be six months to a year before they are functioning optimally together. To assist in this process, schools continue to work with their graduates in their home locations. Some of the larger, better-funded schools provide follow-up services for the working life of the team, which can be eight years. (Everything is provided free of charge to qualified blind and visually impaired students.)
From Puppy to Partner
Careful control of what happens to a young dog during this critical phase of development is a crucial part of producing sound guide dogs. This is the time during which youngsters learn the canine equivalent of “please and thank you.” It’s also the best time to evaluate their health and identify risk factors that could lead to problems later in life. As Barrett notes, “From the earliest stages of their lives, GDB puppies and their moms are cared for by a team of experts, including full-time veterinarians and technicians supported by consulting specialists and volunteers. As the pups grow, our veterinarians continue to monitor their health and well-being.”
All dogs are born with default positions that they revert to when stressed. The reaction can be anything from anxious whining to more serious issues such as biting. The higher the stress, the more pressure on the trigger. Puppy socialization programs provide an opportunity to identify environmental stressors and modify the reaction, or failing that, release the dog from the program to a companion home.
As a handler explains, “Because we can’t see, we don’t know the particulars of what we’re commanding our dogs to do. The dog has to stand up to us, to get it through to us that something is there that we don’t know about, then find a way to get us out of a dangerous situation. A dog that isn’t comfortable holding his ground isn’t suited to the job.”
Guide dogs have to be able to generalize to new, complicated and sometimes abstract situations. It’s easy to train a dog to take someone to a chair. Training a dog to take a person to a place where no one else is sitting, whether it’s a college classroom or restaurant, is a more abstract concept.
Training cycles vary slightly, but generally, puppy raisers return 15-month-old dogs to the school, where they begin 18 to 20 weeks of formal training in the technical aspects of guide work. Using affection and positive reinforcement, the instructor trains the dog to respond to about 35 different commands such as forward, right, left, and find the door.
Weeks one through nine include obedience training, directional turns, negotiating obstacles, light city work, and street crossings. During week 10, dogs are introduced to traffic training. This is the point at which instructors determine whether or not the dog has the confidence and initiative to make the independent decisions needed to override many of the commands he’s learned in the previous nine weeks of training.
To traffic-train a dog, instructors capitalize on what comes naturally: Dogs will move away from an oncoming vehicle. By instinct, the dog will attempt to escape by running around, backing away from or bolting in front of the car. The trick is to control the dog’s movement with reinforcement, encouraging him to back up into the rigid harness handle even though he’s been instructed to go “forward.”
The dog doesn’t know he is signaling (indicating that it’s unsafe to go forward) but he “gets it” soon enough. The light bulb moment—when the dog realizes he is responsible for the person at the other end of the handle—is a deal-breaker for some dogs. They understand the dynamic of the partnership, but they don’t want to do it. It’s a moment puppy raisers anxiously await with mixed feelings. They want their dog to make it through training, but if he fails, they have an opportunity to keep him as a pet. Dogs who don’t want the responsibility go home to be companions. Dogs who meet the challenge move on to learning how to negotiate buildings, busy city traffic, larger street crossings, longer routes, escalators and elevator work.
After the dog is trained, the instructors teach students how to work with the dog during a four-week in-residence class. Person and dog work as a team, each contributing to a relationship built on trust that begins during class and deepens and broadens over time. Handlers are given surprising reminders of the trust they must have in their dogs, and those reminders usually show up the first time they override their dog’s decision to disregard a command. Tripping over a garden hose is minor compared to the consequences of stepping off a curb in front of an SUV making an illegal turn, but the lesson is the same.
Guide dog handler Sheila Styron, past president of Guide Dog Users, Inc., the largest organization of dog handlers in the world, explained what it’s like from the other end of the harness handle. “If a handler sits at a desk all day, his or her guide dog needs to be able to lie quietly for hours, and then be able to confidently guide the blind handler on to a noisy, crowded subway. It’s important to consider the wide array of other factors and interactions within the relationship between dog and handler that can contribute to the team’s success, difficulties or failure. The dance is extremely complex, and the magic extraordinary when all the elements fall into place.”
A Dog and his Girl
Could be a first for a service dog—a photo of Taxi, Rachel Benke’s seizure alert dog, placed side-by-side with her photo in their middle school yearbook. 14-year-old Rachel and Taxi have been inseparable for the past four years. Taxi came into Rachel’s life when her mother, Teresa Benke had a chance meeting at a party with Cindy Buechner, who trains seizure alert dogs. It was Cindy who suggested that a dog like Taxi would be helpful to Rachel, who was born with an abnormality to the right side of her brain and had suffered epileptic seizures since birth. As a young child she would have as many as 200 seizures a day, and when she was six years old she under went corrective brain surgeries, but prior to that she had been completely non-verbal and could only eat baby food. While her seizures were greatly reduced after the surgeries, she still has them occasionally. So it was a great relief to her family that now she has Taxi, who accompanies her to class at San Antonio's Hector Garcia's Middle School, and has been taught to alert family and teachers when she is about to experience a seizure. That is something that he can predict up to an hour and half before it happens. He also orients himself so he can break her fall if that were to happen. An example of his ability to detect a seizure was how he averted a pool accident, Teresa Benke explains:
“Once, when Rachel was swimming in the family's pool, Taxi suddenly bolted up and began slapping at the water. Rachel's parents took her out of the water, and 10 minutes later she had a seizure. On another day, when Rachel was going to play on the trampoline in the backyard, Taxi put his paws on her shoulders to stop her because he felt a seizure coming. Sure enough, one occurred a few minutes later. And as always, he was right by her side.”
It meant the world to Rachel to have a photo of Taxi at her side in their yearbook—just as he is with her every day of her life.
For other stories on how service dogs have helped their people, see:
Seizure Alert Dog Walks at Graduation Parade
Autistic Boy and His Dog
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
Guide Dogs for the Blind changes training methods, and the results are amazing.
In the dog-training world, “crossing over” refers to switching from using old-school traditional training methods (catching the dog making a mistake and correcting that mistake) to modern positive- reinforcement methods (catching the dog doing something right and rewarding those good choices).
Quietly and without fanfare, Guide Dogs for the Blind (GDB)—an organization with a rich history and proven track record of training safe and effective guide dogs—began the process of crossing over almost a decade ago. The results have been nothing short of astounding.
According to Michele Pouliot, GDB’s director of research and development, Karen Pryor Academy faculty member, international Freestyle champion and the force behind the switch, success rates have soared. Using traditional methods, roughly 45 to 50 percent of the dogs entering the formal training process made guide dog status. With the incorporation of clicker training (one type of positive reinforcement), 60 to 85 percent graduate and are successfully paired with a blind partner.
The transition officially began within the training department in 2006. Then, in 2013, GDB adopted an organizationwide mission of maximizing the use of positive reinforcement in all departments. Their current goal is to roll out the changes over a five-year period. All of the dogs in GDB programs— the dogs in formal training, of course, but also the breeding dogs, the smallest puppies and even career-change dogs— will benefit from the commitment to clicker training. For those in the formal training program, the advantages are already clear.
“The dogs are more enthusiastic, better thinkers and problem solvers,” says Pouliot. “Their attitude is over the top. They are confident of the job. They want to do it—they can’t wait to do it!” Pouliot says that dogs who are not part of formal training, such as the breeding dogs, will also gain from the transition. For example, rather than being wrestled on and off exam tables, breeding dogs will be taught to happily get on and off by themselves. This will eliminate some of the stress experienced by both dogs and veterinary staff.
People will also be affected by the switch to clicker-training protocols. Puppy-raising families, volunteers and the blind partners with whom the dogs are paired will all be learning the power of positive reinforcement training. As they are exposed to positive reinforcement, they will learn to notice and acknowledge what the dogs are doing right, rather than looking for mistakes. Those of us who have experienced this transition know that it has the potential to be life altering.
Karen Pryor, CEO of Karen Pryor Clicker Training, author of Don’t Shoot the Dog and the person largely credited with bringing clicker methods to dog training, is equally excited by how positive reinforcement training affects people. Pryor says that learning to train this way is rewarding, and the training itself can be a powerful experience.
As an example, Pryor says she watched a blind handler learn to teach his dog to find things like the mailbox and a signal- crossing button. “What was really amazing was watching this well-dressed man and the expression on his face when he got to reward his dog. He was empowered in this process, too.”
Pouliot says that the impact of clicker training on the dogs has been more than she originally expected. “We hoped we’d get the same performance, but a happier dog. What we didn’t expect was how much better the performance would be.”
One of the initial challenges Pouliot faced was teaching the dogs to ignore food in the environment. Trainers were concerned that using food in training might make it more difficult for the dogs to learn to leave other food alone—a fair concern, to be sure. What they discovered, however, was just the opposite. Clicker-trained dogs were much more successful at this than dogs trained with traditional techniques.
Part of what worked was having a specific food-delivery protocol—a list of food do’s and don’ts that helped make it clear for the dogs. For example, the dogs are not rewarded on the ground, only by the person handling the dog and only when the dog stands in a specific position. Pouliot says that consistency with the protocol is important to a dog’s success.
Like many monumental changes, GDB’s crossing over had humble beginnings. “I started with Guide Dogs for the Blind in 1974,” says Pouliot. “I grew up with them, learning traditional training techniques: waiting for the dog to do something wrong, correcting it and then praising for the right response.” She was entrenched in traditional training, as was the rest of the organization.
For Pouliot, the change began in 2000 when she explored clicker training with her own dogs and horses. Pouliot says that when she clicker-trained her horses—not just one, but all of them—to retrieve objects from across a field, she knew she was on to something very powerful. “That was my big ‘a-ha’ moment. I was so impressed with the success.”
Inspired, Pouliot went to work trying out clicker training with the guide dog program in mind. She conducted a few unofficial trials, training dogs who had already been dropped from the program for various reasons. One, a young female yellow Lab, was too afraid of other dogs to be successful as a guide dog. Pouliot began clicker training her with the primary goal of reducing her fear. Not only was Pouliot successful in turning around the dog’s fearful response—the young Lab went from being scared to actively engaging with the other dogs—but also, the Lab was able to finish training and go on to be a career guide dog.
This and other equally exciting results encouraged Pouliot and others at GDB to begin an official pilot program. Pouliot and one of the training supervisors, Lori Brown, would formally train two dogs using clicker techniques. Because she had previously worked with dolphins (where positive reinforcement training is the norm), Brown was a natural choice for the pilot program.
The other trainers chose the dogs who would take part in the program; their candidates were considered difficult to work with, which set a very high bar for success. But after just one week, the transition in attitude alone spoke in favor of clicker training. The dogs had switched from being low energy and lacking enthusiasm to being animated and excited.
Following the initial success of the pilot program, Pouliot and her colleagues began working on specific procedures and techniques. By 2006, GDB was educating all 65 trainers on two campuses in this “new” method.
“The transition wasn’t instant,” says Pouliot. “In fact, it has been a long journey.” Because they couldn’t stop the training program long enough to establish the new routines and teach all the staff at once, progress was incremental. “We had to teach the staff in small chunks. Each year, we would add new pieces.”
Pouliot acknowledges that it was a challenge at times. Consider trainers—good trainers with 20 or more years of experience— being asked to learn and embrace new methods. But once they saw for themselves how powerful the method was, everyone got excited, and the transition moved forward at a steady pace.
Guide Dogs for the Blind’s organization-wide crossover to clicker training has and will continue to have a tremendous and powerful effect on the people and animals associated with its programs. But the reach of this transition has already been felt far beyond the immediate scope of the organization. Pouliot and GDB have shared the success of their program with guide-dog trainers worldwide through a series of weeklong seminars.
Pryor says that what GDB and Pouliot have done is not just develop a model for training guide- and other service dogs, but also showed how to reach people and organizations entrenched in traditions, and how to help them successfully make changes.
She also points out that the success of this program and the lessons learned about working in a positive manner for positive changes have had a big influence on her own life, giving her better tools to help with organizational transitions.
The magnitude of change brought about by the use of principles of positive reinforcement will continue to ripple outward to the larger guide dog world, the even larger service-dog-training world and beyond. How far? Imagine the power when a family-dog trainer can say to a doubting client, “These are similar to the methods used by Guide Dogs for the Blind. Let’s give them a try and see if they might work for your dog, too.”
Special thanks to Michele Pouliot and Karen Pryor for their contributions to this article.
The Puppy Handoff
This is a touching story of a seizure-alert dog’s participation at a graduation ceremony at Idaho State University. This Pit Bull’s person, Joshua Kelly who was suffering from epilepsy recently completed his degree, but sadly had died in February. To honor his memory, Terrell Kelly, Joshua’s father, brought Cletus to walk the “stage” with him to pick up his son’s diploma, this gesture was met with cheers from all—a very moving moment indeed.
Culture: Science & History
During the summer of 1938, a frail 82-year-old man was forced by the Nazis to flee his home. On the train out of Vienna, along with other family members, was his Chow companion Lün. Upon arriving in Dover, in accordance with English laws, Lün was taken from him and placed in the quarantine kennels at Ladbroke Grove, London. Just five days after Freud settled into his new house, the weary exile ventured out on his first trip. This is how an Australian newspaper, The Referee, described the event:
Freud found his journey across London tiring. He seemed to find it a great effort to walk up the path to the front door, supported by his daughter, Dr. Anna Freud. But nothing could have kept the great scientist away from his dog friend. And yesterday I was told by Mr. Kevin L. Quin, head of the quarantine kennels, how Lün leapt to meet him at his approach, glad recognition in every gesture. “It was difficult to say which was more delighted,” Mr. Quin told me. “I have never seen such happiness and understanding in an animal’s eyes …. He played with her, talked to her, using all sorts of little terms of endearment, for fully an hour. And, though the journey is long for a man of his years, he said he was resolute in coming to see Lün as often as he can.”
It has been noted that any person who tries seriously to figure out human behavior will sooner or later come to appreciate the company of dogs. Sigmund Freud was no exception. At the onset of the Second World War, he was especially disillusioned with his fellow man. Freud had devoted his life to analyzing the contradictory and irrational aspects of the unconscious mind, a labor that made animals seem much easier to understand. His daughter Anna recalled that “[w]hat Freud valued in his dogs was their gracefulness, devotion, and fidelity; what he frequently stressed and praised as a decided advantage over men was their absence of any ambivalence. ‘Dogs,’ as he used to say, ‘love their friends and bite their enemies, in contrast to men who are incapable of pure love and must at all times mix love and hate in their object relations.”
The first dog to live at Berggasse 19, Freud’s Vienna apartment, was a German Shepherd named Wolf. Freud gave him to Anna in 1925 for protection on her long walks through the city. But Wolf’s services extended to other arenas—he once bit Ernest Jones (a colleague and future biographer) in 1927. Freud felt that Jones deserved it, probably because years before Freud had worried that Jones would seduce Anna on her first visit to England. In a sense Freud saw Wolf as substitute figure for himself, keeping Anna safe and punishing annoying guests. Years later Freud wrote Jones the following lines, again identifying with the dog: “Our Wolf, too, who once behaved with such unfriendliness toward you is now an old man, in his doggy way as old as me, i.e., over eleven years.”
But Wolf could also act as a surrogate for others. Freud admitted that he bestowed on Wolf the tender feelings intended for his grandson Heinele, who had died as a young boy. Animals played a similar role for Anna, who as an adult could more readily show affection for her father through the family dogs. On Freud’s birthdays she would always compose a canine poem and attach it to the dog’s collar. At first Wolf had the sole honor of delivering the birthday greetings, but in 1928 Freud acquired a dog of his own. This Chow, LünYug, was run over by a train in August of 1929 when she was only 15 months old. Freud was dejected and wouldn’t hear of getting a replacement. By the next spring, however, he was ready for another Chow, Lün Yug’s sister Jofi. This dog was to become Freud’s cherished pet for the next seven years.
On his 74th birthday, while away in Berlin for medical care, Freud received Jofi’s first doggerel verse:
Jofi who leaps/and through the door escapes,/ho slips the leash/and fights with enemies,/ho stretches out in greeting and/licks your hand, sends herewith/on May the sixth/a symbol that/should indicate/how she wants to change/and act more restrained:/wants to scarcely move when/doors are opened/does not want to bark nor scrap/nor run nor leap/hardly wants to drink or eat.
So speaks Jofi sad at heart/sorry that we are apart.
Jofi was always by Freud’s side—on his walks, at mealtime and even in his office with the famed upholstered couch. Freud’s longtime housekeeper Paula Fichtl remembered Freud saying that Jofi had a keen analytic insight into his patients. And Freud could always tell when the hour was up because Jofi would start to act restless. The poet and analysand Hilda Doolittle recalled feeling “annoyed at the end of my session as Jofi would wander about and I felt that the professor was more interested in Jofi than he was in my story.” It’s also likely that the patient depicted in the “Wolf Man” case study (so named because of his fear of wolves) had to face Anna’s dog Wolf during some of his sessions with Freud!
Freud often mentioned Jofi in his diaries, noting such details as her general health, her stays at the kennels and the fates of her litters. Moreover, he spared no expense on Jofi, including paying for a complicated operation needed to remove some ovarian cysts. On January 14, 1937, a few days after this procedure, Jofi died of heart failure, and Freud deeply mourned her. As he put it, “one cannot easily get over seven years of intimacy.” Ernest Jones observed that at this stage of his life Freud knew he couldn’t live without a dog. Jofi had originally come into the household with a gentler Chow named Lün, who was given away to friends because the two didn’t get along well. The day after Jofi’s death, Lün (named after Freud’s first Chow, Lün Yug) returned to Freud.
Lün not only helped Freud endure Jofi’s loss, she also helped lift his spirits as both his health and the political situation in Austria deteriorated. Ever since a cancer operation in 1923, Freud had been forced to use a jaw prosthesis that made it difficult for him to chew, and as his illness progressed he took great pleasure in seeing the dogs chomp down their food. But it was a Chow named Topsy who provided Freud the most vicarious relief during his protracted illness. Topsy belonged to Freud’s close friend and benefactress Princess Marie Bonaparte. While Freud introduced Bonaparte to psychoanalysis, Bonaparte turned Freud into a dog lover. More significantly, she would ransom Freud’s family out of Austria.
Before they fled Vienna, Freud and Anna collaborated on a German translation of Bonaparte’s 1936 work Topsy Chow-Chow au poil d’or (Topsy: The Story of a Golden Haired Chow). The book deals with Topsy’s struggle with cancer. The parallels between Freud’s and Topsy’s disease are quite uncanny—both had tumors on the right side of their oral cavities and both were treated with surgery and radiation. In fact, Marie Bonaparte had at different points consulted the same doctors at the Curie Institute in Paris about Freud and Topsy’s condition. Freud, Anna and Marie didn’t explicitly discuss the clear symbolism behind Topsy, but they were well aware that it helped them cope with Freud’s own cancer. Interestingly enough, after suffering a stroke in 1982, Anna tried to dictate a book about her Chow at the time—also named Jofi.
Although Topsy survived his illness, Freud became increasingly worse in England. While Lün was at the kennels, a small Pekinese named Jumbo was brought in to keep him the doctor company. However, Anna noted that her father remained loyal to Lün, so the Pekinese grew more attached to Paula the housekeeper. On December 6, 1938, six months to the day after Lün’s quarantine began, Anna retrieved the Chow from the state kennels. Freud thus enjoyed his last days in the company of Lün, but eventually his own beloved dog would not come near him due to the putrid odor emanating from his face. Lün’s rejection only added to his distress, and as the pain became intolerable, Freud decided to be euthanized with a lethal dose of morphine.
Freud confronted his own death—much like he had lived his whole life—in a logical and unsentimental manner. There was, however, one great exception. In a letter to Marie Bonaparte, he rationally explained that dogs provide “affection without ambivalence, the simplicity of a life free from the almost unbearable conflicts of civilization, the beauty of an existence complete in itself.” But then Freud revealed the slightly embarrassing kind of sentiment that’s familiar to all dog owners: “Often when stroking Jofi, I have caught myself humming a melody which, unmusical as I am, I can’t help recognizing as the aria from Don Giovanni:
A bond of friendship unites us both ….”
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Therapy dogs attend marathon festivities
After the bombings at the 2013 Boston Marathon, therapy dogs from the Lutheran Church Charities K-9 Comfort Dog Ministries were there within 24 hours. The group consists of 70 therapy dogs (all Golden Retrievers) from 10 states. Small groups of the dogs visit churches, schools, hospitals and disaster areas, offering the soothing, healing presence that only dogs can provide. Many survivors and first responders in Boston benefited from spending time with these highly trained and lovable dogs.
This year at the Boston Marathon and associated events, four dogs from this group will again be in attendance. Ruthie, Hannah, Luther and Rufus have traveled from Illinois to offer support and lots of opportunities for petting and loving. They are making appearances throughout the four days of events that conclude with the race on Monday, April 21, 2014. It’s the fourth visit of “Comfort Dogs” to the area since the events at last year’s race.
Every year, runners and fans of the sport watch the Boston Marathon. This year the audience is bigger because the whole world is watching. I’m so glad that these therapy dogs are a part of the celebration and that they have been part of the healing all year. They are contributing to making Boston strong.
An abused pup's remarkable friendship with a boy with autism.
April is both Autism Awareness and Prevention of Animal Cruelty month. This story of Jonny, the eight-year-boy with autism, and Xena, the horribly abused Pit Bull, present a powerful and heart-warming tale about survival and the indescribable bond we have with dogs. The pup was severely abused and starving to death when she came into the DeKalb (Georgia) Animal Services shelter, she was given only an one percent chance of survival. Jonny’s mom, Linda Hickey, had been following the pup’s story on Facebook and decided to take the chance that this pup would be the perfect match for her son. See how right she was!
Xena won the ASPCA’s Hero of the Dog Award in 2013, and is now in the running for the “emerging dog hero” award from the American Humane Association.
Linda Hickey poignantly tells their story in this video. Watch it to see why Xena deserves your vote.
For more, see this recent interview as well.
And watch Jonny sing “You Got a Friend in Me” to his best pal, Xena.
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
Is it possible for a dog to help in a recovery?
That first weekend, we weren’t sure we were keeping him. It was a trial placement.
As we drove the excited little Terrier away from his foster home—the two foster dads waving fondly from their front step—he dashed frantically around our car’s interior, clambering over everyone, scratching our legs, trying desperately to reach an open window—not to escape, it turned out, but so he could experience head-on the full 45 mph smash of wind in the face. In the front passenger seat, the scruffy brown mutt perched on my husband’s right thigh, curled his front paws over the lowered window, angled himself toward the side mirror, and stretched his torso and neck into the gale. The airstream peeled back the fur from his face, the lips from his teeth and the unshorn bangs from his eyes until the wild-eyed dog with airborne ears looked like a demon flying beside the car.
At our house, the little demon—a knee-high, wire-haired Terrier mix (something like a Cairn, I thought, though the foster dads thought Yorkie), two or three years old—streaked up the hardwood staircase and stumbled back down and flew back up and tripped back down. He flushed the two cats from their hiding places and chased them until they vaulted to furniture above his reach; he nosed the two elderly, bewildered dogs as they lay curled together in a dog bed; then he ran upstairs and downstairs some more. He’d been captured by Southern Animal Rescue at a Wal-Mart parking lot, where he’d lived and foraged as a stray. Evidently, neither the Wal- Mart parking lot nor the foster home had included stairs, for his interest in them was boundless. I was down there! Now I am … wait for it … up here! Bark bark bark! Watch out—I’m coming down! Bark bark bark!
He was enthusiastic about everything. He yapped at a peeved cat sitting on top of the piano and then pursued the other cat up the stairs lickety-split. He was getting good at stairs! The two elderly dogs, rousing themselves from their autumnal haze, raised their heads and knitted their eyebrows in looks of concern. Theo, an 11-year-old miniature Wire- Haired Dachshund, had pursued a lifetime career as first lieutenant to Franny, the stout, freckled, 13-year-old Rat Terrier. Now, imagining he needed to put a stop to these shenanigans (though Franny likely felt no such thing), Theo sprang into aggressive action and hurried to the bottom of the stairs where the new pup was playing Chutes & Ladders with himself. Teeth bared, Theo tried to take a snarling bite out of the young Terrier’s leg on his next trip to the bottom. The new guy yelped and ran back up. A few of the humans suddenly couldn’t remember why anyone had thought getting a new dog was a good plan.
In the fall of 2012, we had five teenagers living at home (ages 15, 16, 17, 18 and 18), two elderly dogs and two amiable cats. Our 24-year-old son Lee—the third oldest of our nine children (four by birth and five by adoption at older ages from Bulgaria and Ethiopia)—had just been diagnosed, to everyone’s astonishment, with a late Stage III colon cancer, so he had moved home. His beautiful girlfriend, Maya Selber, flew down from Philadelphia to join us on the surreal Long March into cancer treatment. This made for seven young people, two middle-aged people, three frequently visiting young adults and four animals under one roof. There was also the deadline (for me) of a book contract, and the pressure (on both my husband and me) of trying to keep everything and everyone afloat financially and emotionally.
“Stay away from the Internet,” the cancer survivors among our friends warned us. “The projections, the statistics, won’t do you any good. They won’t apply to your son anyway.” Our son was a statistical outlier—a 24-year-old with a disease that typically appeared among people in late middle age.
I had no trouble avoiding cancer websites. But I did have trouble working. It wasn’t just the demands of medical tests, consultations and hospital visits, as Lee bravely and compliantly began chemotherapy, radiation and daily self-injections, and faced two surgeries in the not-distant future. It was the fact that, even if I found a free hour, I couldn’t think about anything other than cancer. And the fact that, as a family, we were sliding into a group depression.
Lee happens to be an ebullient, generous, playful fellow. He excels at happiness and at including everyone in the fun. From a young age, he has been our family camp counselor, holiday planner and coach. He tells us when it’s time for touch football, when it’s time for charades and when it’s time to sit down and watch the Atlanta Braves on TV. He knows when we need to buy tickets and go to Turner Field instead. He knows when we need company (always), when it’s time to decorate the den for the start of the Falcons season and when I must buy the Settlers of Catan Expansion Pack for Additional Players. He knows when he and his siblings need to go to late-night bowling.
His professional life reflects his flair for play. He is a teacher and coach at a school for teens and young adults on the autism spectrum. Over the last few years, he has organized sports and games for Ethiopian orphans, for children hospitalized with heart defects, for teenage Sudanese and Eritrean refugees in Israel and for destitute children in Haiti.
In the summer of 2012, Lee and Maya created a children’s recreation program in the town of Kenscoff, Haiti. When they returned, Lee, always slender, startled us because he’d lost more than 20 pounds. He insisted he was fine; he must have lost weight from eating nothing but plantains all summer and from some gastrointestinal bug. Everyone agreed it had to be an amoebic infection. Until it wasn’t.
The day the GI doc phoned with the definitive diagnosis of an enormous malignant tumor, I found Lee sitting in the dark in the living room. “How are you doing?” I asked.
“I just feel so … lucky,” he said.
“If I were Haitian, I would die of this. If I were Ethiopian, I would die of this.”
That was his stance: gratitude—for family and friends, for Emory University Hospital, for Obamacare (that allowed us to carry him, at 24, on my husband’s law firm’s insurance policy)—and humor. The day the surgeon estimated that the tumor must have been growing for a decade, we pondered the news over dinner. “Lee,” I said. “This means that middle school, high school, working in Ethiopia, gap year in Israel, college at Oberlin, college in Israel, working in Haiti, everything you have done, you have done with cancer. Now you’re starting treatment. Sometime next year, you’ll experience life without cancer for the first time since you were 13 or 14.”
“My Major League Baseball career! It’s not too late!” he cried.
“Maybe you’ll have musical or artistic gifts!” I said.
“I won’t be the slowest of the six brothers anymore!” he yelled.
But Yosef, 15, our almost-six-foot-tall Ethiopian son, corrected him: “No, Lee, you will still be the slowest.”
Lee, already a Fantasy Football League player, created additional leagues that fall so that far-flung siblings, cousins and friends from Haifa, Jerusalem, San Francisco, Oberlin, Columbus and Detroit could remain in daily touch without mentioning the one topic he didn’t want to talk about. But, as chemotherapy and radiation took up more and more of his time, his energy flagged. Little by little, he passed on pickup football and front-yard soccer and driveway basketball. Then he began declining board games. Constantly obliged to fast or to follow a liquid diet, he stopped telling us when it was a good night for pizza, when we needed fresh bagels and when he hoped I would make lasagna. Because our younger children had experienced great loss in their young lives— the four Ethiopian children had been orphaned by disease, had lost siblings to disease—sorrow ran through our house. Behind closed bedroom doors at night, teenagers were crying.
I began searching the Internet for information. Not for information about colon cancer in 24-year-olds. For information about rescue dogs. It was pure fantasy to look at their pictures and to imagine leading one away to a life of love and happiness, dogs and teenage athletes, fields and woods. Searching the shelter and rescue websites every day for an adoptable, medium-sized dog became my great escape. Like Fantasy Football, it was Not Cancer.
For an animal lover, there are few harder things to look at than photos of dogs behind bars, especially those at county shelters with significant kill ratios. I don’t know which are sadder: the lackluster eyes of dogs who have abandoned all hope, who sit with slumped shoulders gazing down at the cement, or the still-bright eyes of dogs who, with pricked ears and lifted eyebrows, believe someone is coming for them. Photos of dogs in foster homes pierced me, too, because the pups lolling across someone’s lap in a back yard, with wideopen smiles, clearly thought they had a family, when in fact they were still in limbo, their futures uncertain.
“Do you think we should get another dog?” I asked my husband one night in a high-pitched voice as though expressing a sudden passing thought.
Despite the fact that we were in the midst of a major medical emergency, my husband, Don Samuel, a criminal defense attorney, the man who had agreed every step of the way about adding another child until we ended up with nine, said yes.
“Three dogs aren’t too many dogs?”
“Franny and Theo nap most of the time now.”
“And they say dogs are a great consolation for people going through cancer treatment.”
“You know Maya never had a dog? This would be such an amazing experience for her, something fun to come home to after a long day of sitting in the chemo infusion room.”
“Definitely,” he said, wondering why I offered so many supporting arguments for an idea he’d liked instantly.
I returned to the Internet the next morning with zest. I studied the names, genders, backstories, estimated ages and guessed-at breed mixes of scores of dogs. I attended weekend pet-adoption events. But I came home with only pet food.
I didn’t rush into a commitment, because actually bringing home a dog would mean I’d have to give up my fantasy life of browsing for a dog. I wasn’t sure an actual dog could replace this vicarious escape.
Then I saw a picture of the little brown Terrier. The photograph was blurry in the foreground—because he was pushing his trembly, wet, black nose too close to the camera—and blurry in the rear—because his tail wagged so fast. He looked boyish, mischievous, something like Lady and the Tramp’s Tramp. There he is! I thought.
Typing quickly, I emailed the rescue group (from which we’d adopted our black-and-white kitty the previous summer) and said, “We’re interested! Is he still available?”
I held my breath. How could someone so cute still be available even 60 seconds after his photo went up? He was still available!
“Do you want to go meet a dog?” I asked Lee.
“What??!! Really?” he cried. “Really?”
All the kids yelled: “Really? We’re getting another dog?!”
“I don’t know, I don’t know!” I said. “We’re just going to meet one.”
That Sunday at the foster home, the first thing I saw was a curious black nose busily poking here and there through the slats of the backyard fence. I recognized that nose! And here he came, tearing into the front yard, frisking through the grass to meet everyone.
It wasn’t love at first sight for me. For me it was more: Okay. And something like: He looks nicely proportioned.
It wasn’t love at first sight for anyone. “What do you think?
What do you think?” we all asked one another.
“Let’s give him a try,” said Donny.
“Do you have a clue how he is with cats?” I asked.
“Take him home for a week,” said one of the foster dads.
“The rescue group knows your family. See how he does with your cats.”
So we led him into the car and he squashed over everybody trying to get his head out a window.
He rampaged through the house all weekend. He sprinted into my bedroom, saw me reading on the bed, jumped up and bounced off the bed, and tore out of the room. He was a steel ball in a pinball machine. We were the levers.
“Are we keeping him?” we asked one another.
“If we’re keeping him, he needs a name,” I said. I felt unsure. I felt: not in love. I felt: I can’t even fall in love with him if he doesn’t have a name. I felt suddenly aware of the work involved in assimilating a stray dog into the household. The two cats and the elderly Dachshund had already signaled thumbs-down. Only the 12-year-old Rat Terrier, Franny, approved of him; she had accepted his polite licks and gestures of youth and respect. But then, Franny was a saint. I wasn’t. I thought: Can I—should I—really take him on at this time?
But he needed a home. We had one.
God knows we needed an infusion of joie de vivre. He offered that.
“Let’s keep him,” I said.
“What are you thinking? Of course we’re keeping him!” my husband laughed.
Lee and Maya assumed the responsibility of choosing a name. By Monday night, the little fellow became Bodie. By Tuesday morning, it was as if he’d always been Bodie. Maya touched him only gingerly at first; his rough fur felt greasy to her. (She’d grown up in one of those families in which a parent pretends to be allergic to dogs; she’d never been this close to a dog before.) She startled when Bodie nestled against her leg, or when he sat up and looked her straight in the eye, apparently asking for something. To be petted? She touched the top of his head cautiously, with one finger, and he settled back down with a groan of contentment.
When Lee bathed Bodie for the first time, Maya stood back, taking pictures with her iPhone. She laughed at his slicked-down, mournful look in the bathtub, screamed when he escaped and scattered water through the house, and marveled when his fur dried to a remarkable and colorful silkiness. (According to a later doggie-DNA test, the foster dads were right: there was no Cairn in him, but one parent was purebred Yorkshire Terrier). He wasn’t a monochrome brown dog: he was streaked with hues of wood-brown, gray, khaki and gold, growing lighter from his back to his front as though he’d been held by the nose and dipped in chocolatebrown pigment, which then ran off the length of him. The soft down on his narrow chest was champagne-colored.
He adapted easily to home life, to family life. He was naturally housetrained; the modest type, he preferred to conceal himself behind a distant tree or bush for elimination. He made peace with the Dachshund and the cats within the week. He waited for permission before jumping up on our beds: he sat, hoping for a word or gesture. If you forgot to invite him up, he gave a few soft reminder yips. He joined the teenagers on their soccer fields and stole the ball. His dog manners were excellent. Somewhere I’ve read that stray dogs are often the best socialized. He was instantly popular at dog parks, glad-handing everyone, chatting everyone up. He could have run for office.
When Lee was laid up for hours or days, Bodie snuggled loyally with him. He laid his face across Lee’s sleeping body with a melancholy look and refused to leave the bed. When Lee felt a little better, he pulled himself together in order to take Bodie for a walk; through the months of intense treatment, Lee’s walks were dedicated to Bodie’s health and happiness, as if they had nothing to do with his own. He had major surgery in March 2013. On the fourth day after surgery, Lee was able to leave his hospital floor and ride the elevator down to a small park on the hospital grounds. We brought Bodie to visit him. Such joy all around!
Maya fell head-over-heels in love with her silly pup. Watching her made me wonder if it was almost worthwhile to grow up without a dog so that, at 24, you could fall in love with your first one so boundlessly and breathtakingly. Whatever he did became her little nicknames for him: “You little licker,” she cooed. “You little barker. You little muddyface.” He was smart and eager to learn. She taught him to sit, to stay, to come, to shake, to fist-bump and to roll over.
Bodie was happy all the time. He trotted, smiled and wiggled with happiness. He loved every person in our family. In parks, he ran so fast, with such freedom and joy, that he nearly took flight. From the prick of his ears to the loft of his tail, Bodie had Not Cancer written all over him.
One night, Lee announced: “We don’t think it’s possible to love anyone more than we love Bodie. Are you saying people love their children more than this?”
“Hmmm, probably,” I said.
“That’s not possible. Bodie is the cutest thing on earth,” he said.
I agreed completely! Bodie is the cutest thing on the planet! My very first instinct—my lightning-fast reaction when I first saw his photograph—had been accurate. How on earth could I have thought only, “He’s okay” and “He’s proportional” when I first met him? How was it possible, that first weekend, that we hadn’t realized we were in the presence of someone so adorable and so incredibly gifted and special? Love was absent then, so we couldn’t see clearly. Now that we’re in love, we understand that Bodie’s gifts are just like Lee’s. He lives to make friends, to have fun, to share his extraordinary sense of everyday joy.
Lee’s cancer is in remission now, the 14 months of struggle, pain and treatment nearly finished. He, Maya and Bodie moved to their own apartment (situated on a dog park and next-door to a park and jogging trail). Bodie visits our house every day and (when Lee and Maya are out late with friends) he sometimes sleeps over. Thanks to his doctors, family, friends, Maya and Bodie, Lee feels that the past year—on balance— has been a great one.
Have you heard about the couple in Northern California who were out walking their dog on their property and stumbled upon the greatest treasure of rare gold coins ever found in the U.S? It was buried in eight old tin cans, under an old tree. It’s a great story and evidence that dog walking is definitely worth its weight in gold. The coins, all 1,427 of them, date from 1847 to 1894, the height of the Gold Rush, and have initially been appraised at being worth $10 million. One $20 gold coin, minted in 1866 before the slogan “In God We Trust” appeared on coins, is so rare that by itself could fetch $1 million. The couple, and their pooch, wisely wish to remain anonymous and have lived in this rural area of California’s Gold Country for several years. They did say that this treasure means that now they can keep their property, the man adding, “Like a lot of people lately, we’ve had some financial trials, I feel extreme gratitude that we can keep our beloved property.” The couple also noted that they want to donate some of the proceeds to the homeless and hungry in their area.
What treasures or special finds has your dog sniffed out?
For more news on this story.
We just got this wonderful note and video from Tamandra Michaels, a perfect representative for our slogan, Dog Is My Co-Pilot. She writes:
"I think I tried to share this video I had made of my puppy on your Facebook page, but not sure if was really seen. I just wanted to really share this, as I have your shirt on, and he is so fitting with “dog is my co-pilot.” You blogged about my last Shepherd, who pulled me in my wheelchair, and was a very special guy. I was so devastated to lose him. This current pup has really healed me, and is turning out to be just as special, a very amazing boy! He loves to pull me fast in the chair, but also developed this talent all on his own—and it has to be his idea ha ha. He pushes me with his nose, all over the place. It's just especially cool when I have your shirt on .… It fits my whole philosophy of training, too. Force free, truly a team mate, co-pilot :)"
You can read more about her and this amazing dog, Justice True, on http://journeywithjustice.com
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